Do people want to eat lab-grown meat? A new study, for which I was a peer-reviewer, is the first to rigorously assess consumer interest in plant-based and “clean meat” (also known as lab-grown or cultured meat) in the US, India and China. The study found “high levels of acceptance” in all three countries and “significantly higher acceptance” in India and China, where 86% and 93% respectively reported being at least “somewhat likely” to purchase clean meat.
Chris Bryant, the lead author on the study in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, told me, “Across the world’s three most populous countries, consumers want plant-based and clean meat. The opportunities for innovators to change the meat industry in these countries are there.”
Companies are beginning to capitalize on these opportunities. Earlier this week, Motif Ingredients announced that it had raised $90m in funding, the largest Series A round ever for a food technology company. This makes Motif the largest company focused on cellular agriculture – the new industry creating animal products without animal farming. This is no surprise given Motif is a spin-off of Ginkgo Bioworks, a huge player in synthetic biology, and funded by organizations like Breakthrough Energy, which includes Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Vinod Khosla.
Does this mean India and China could become the first countries to adopt these new products? Maybe. Most of these new animal-free food companies are based in the US – in Silicon Valley specifically – and there is no comparable hub of biotechnology investment in the world like the Valley.
Let’s keep in mind that this kind of survey data always comes with qualifications. It is difficult to conduct representative polling in any country, but especially India and China. The Frontiers study participants in India and China tended to be urban, well-educated and high-income, so their responses may not be reflective of the population more broadly. On the other hand, these are probably the demographics who will be the first target audience of clean meat, which could make them ideal for research.
There are also concerns with how different cultures respond to surveys. For example, the authors of the study note that participants in China may tend to give middle responses like “moderately likely” regardless of the question. It is not known if this reflects genuine consumer preference or is just a quirk of how people in China respond to surveys, which would make the Chinese data hard to compare with other countries’.
Survey responses about food technology also vary tremendously based on translation, terminology and question wording. Using the phrase “lab-grown meat”, for example, can immediately turn consumers off, while “clean meat” – the term used in this most recent survey – has much better connotations. This is why in our survey research at Sentience Institute, we avoid these terms, simply describing the products to respondents. We found that 53% of Americans said they would swap out this new meat for conventional meat if the prices were equal.
The case for clean meat taking off in Asia is strong. I visited China last year to give lectures on the issues of animal agriculture and the promise of clean meat. China set its most recent nutritional guidelines at 50% of their current levels of meat consumption, and it has a $300m clean tech deal with Israel, a leading country in this nascent industry. China’s top-down social structure gives the nation the ability to rapidly change its food system and potentially piggyback on, or even leapfrog over, western companies.
Competition between nations can be a powerful factor in social change. For example, in Brown v Board of Education, a court brief the Truman administration filed on behalf of Brown argued that “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.” And there is currently a global competition to build and export renewable energy technology, as well as control natural resources for products like lithium ion batteries.
We could be on our way to a “clean meat” arms race between global superpowers.